Hot Docs film 'Mr. Toilet' shows Jack Sim's struggle to improve global sanitation
A Hot Docs film is plunging viewers into the story of a Singaporean man’s decades-long quest to improve access to proper sanitation around the world, shedding light on an uncomfortable topic that can have a deadly cost.
“Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man,” showing at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this weekend, tells the story of Jack Sim, also known as “Mr. Toilet,” the colourful founder of the World Toilet Organization.
The organization trains locals to build latrines, constructs toilets in places that don’t have them, and works to shift social norms and attitudes in countries where open defecation is not thought of as unhealthy.
“We are a very small team of people that through storytelling (we’re) able to mobilize the entire world to participate and pay attention to a subject that is otherwise neglected,” Sim told CTV News Channel.
His work pushed the United Nations to declare “World Toilet Day,” marked each Nov. 19 -- the same day that Sim’s group was founded.
It was “a big milestone,” Sim said.
Lily Zepeda, the documentary’s director, said that the film uses animation, stunts and humour to break the ice and spark a conversation on a seldom spoken about topic. Sim often appears in the film in various costumes, including one of a man sitting on a toilet.
“One of the things (Sim) taught me early on is that what we don’t talk about, we can’t solve,” Zepeda told CTV News Channel, adding that she initially thought his group was a joke before realizing the stakes of inaction.
According to the United Nation, nearly 60 per cent of the world’s population lacks access to safely managed sanitation facilities and at least 892 million people continue to practice open defecation, risking the spread of disease. Each day, nearly 1,000 children die from water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases that are entirely preventable.
The lack of access to sanitation is not just a health issue, but also a safety one. In 2014, two Indian girls were gang-raped and hanged after they went to relieve themselves in the dark.
Sim said that he is seeing some major inroads being made in expanding access to proper sanitation, even in countries such as China and India that have the biggest burdens. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has pledged to build 100 million toilets and Sim has a project building toilets in some Chinese schools.
“If the leaders of the two biggest countries in the world are toilet champions,” Sim told CTV News Channel, “I think we’re seeing a major change from when I first started.”
But building toilets and latrines is not enough, Sim acknowledged, without a change in cultural behaviour. Still, he is optimistic.
“If everyone works together, the problem can be solved,” he said.